In face of denials of its hypersonic capabilities, N. Korea fires Mach 10 missile

Posted on : 2022-01-12 16:56 KST Modified on : 2022-01-12 16:56 KST
The pace of North Korea’s hypersonic missile development has been much faster than predicted
This still from a virtual Security Consultative Committee (2+2) meeting on Friday morning, shows (from left to right, top to bottom) Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. (AP/Yonhap News)
This still from a virtual Security Consultative Committee (2+2) meeting on Friday morning, shows (from left to right, top to bottom) Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. (AP/Yonhap News)

Reaching a maximum speed exceeding Mach 10 and rated by military authorities as more advanced than its previous missile tested days earlier, the ballistic missile fired by North Korea on Tuesday is being taken as a sign that the North’s hypersonic missile development is proceeding faster than anticipated.

North Korea also claimed to have tested hypersonic missiles in September 2021 and on Jan. 5, a possibility that the South Korean military had been dismissing.

As if to refute the position of South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, the North’s latest missile nearly doubled the speed of the one fired just six days earlier. And with no clear determination yet on whether the Mach 10 speed detected by the military came during the boost phase or the gliding phase, questions about the military authorities’ determinations have been mounting.

A hypersonic missile is propelled upward by a rocket propellant, temporarily escaping the atmosphere before returning and altering its direction to glide at hypersonic speeds above Mach 5 at an altitude of roughly 30–70 kilometers.

In comparison with the simple arcing trajectory of ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles are difficult to detect with radar, with flight paths that are very hard to predict. This makes them extremely difficult to intercept with existing missile defense systems — which is why it has been described by some as a “game-changing” weapon.

The pace of North Korea’s hypersonic missile development has also been much faster than its neighbors had predicted.

In a project report at the 8th Workers’ Party of Korea Congress in January 2021, North Korea said it was “finish[ing] research into developing warheads of different combat missions including the hypersonic gliding flight warheads for new-type ballistic rockets and [. . .] making preparations for their test manufacture.”

In light of North Korea’s difficult economic situation — as well as the fact that it took between 10 and 20 years for the US, Russia, and China to develop hypersonic missiles to a level ready for combat deployment — many had predicted it would take some time for the country to develop a hypersonic missile.

Instead, it conducted three test launches — including a hypersonic gliding projectile — within a year of formally declaring that it would be developing such weaponry. It has also been progressively improving its hypersonic missile capabilities in terms of range and speed.

Some observers are sharing concerns that with the North’s hypersonic missile development adding a new wrinkle amid the strategic competition between Washington and Beijing, an overheating arms race could imperil peace in Northeast Asia.

Currently, countries in Northeast Asia are competing to develop hypersonic missiles.

In December 2020, Russia deployed the hypersonic missile Avangard, which is capable of irregular flight patterns. China announced in November 2021 that it had deployed numerous Dongfeng-17 hypersonic missiles.

In South Korea, the MND announced its intent to develop a hypersonic cruise missile in December 2020. The Agency for Defense Development has been working on developing a hypersonic cruise missile with a target deployment date in the 2030s.

The US and Japan are similarly developing hypersonic missiles.

In a virtual meeting of foreign and defense ministers on Friday, the US and Japan signed an agreement toward joint research and development on defense equipment to respond to hypersonic missiles, citing North Korea, China and Russia.

Since last year, Pyongyang has consistently maintained that its missile tests are part of a push to beef up defense capabilities and bear no connection to the surrounding political situation. But the US, Japan, and others have been citing the North Korean threat as a justification for their race to develop hypersonic weapons.

In a Facebook post, University of North Korean Studies professor Kim Dong-yup wrote, “There is no such thing as ‘weapons that make peace.’”

“Both South and North [Korea] have forgotten this,” he added.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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